Cultural Values Change over Time and Across Borders
Middle-aged people in most countries benefit from the custom that younger people are obliged to listen patiently to their sage advice, whether it’s actually sage or not.
The respect accorded to the opinions of seniors is a notable feature of traditional Chinese culture. This is also reflected in the relatively honorific terms by which they are addressed.
The virtue of filial piety, which relates to treating parents and elders with great respect, has been deeply imbedded in Chinese society and taught to young people for centuries.
Once upon a time many years ago, you could spot a Chinese senior from a distance by their gray hair. In recent times it appears that either a lot more juniors have been promoted to senior leadership posts, or there is a whole lot of hair dying going on. (Note to Warren Buffet: check out this hot growth industry.)
I recently gave a presentation on the differences between Chinese and American business etiquette. One example of the many differences is that North Americans are very quick to address each other on a first-name basis; whereas in Chinese custom, senior executives are addressed with respectful, even lofty, titles following their surnames.
It’s always a safe bet, for example, when addressing a vice minister, to address him or her as “Minister”, to address a vice president as “President”, and so on. When in doubt, it’s always safe to give them a promotion.
On North Americans’ preoccupation with informality in the way we address each other, one observer even commented:
“You have to know a man awfully well in Canada to know his surname.”
In other words, first names remain the dominant terms of address for a long time. This is not only very different from Chinese custom, but from many European countries as well. One older German friend told me that even among his best friends, they still address each other by “Herr” (“Mr.”) followed by the surname.
By comparison, where I come from, the U.S., I’m just another “Tom.” Here in China, I am usually addressed in a much more deferential manner: Chairman Gao, Editor-in-Chief Gao, Professor Gao, etc. (No wonder foreigners are reluctant to return to their home country. We may board the airplane in China as a professor, and get off as just another mister.)
Customs are constantly changing. Lately I’ve noticed it’s very common in China to address people as “Teacher”, as in “Teacher Wong,” “Teacher Li,” etc. This began as a reflection of the exalted role of teachers in traditional Chinese society.
The difference today is that many of the people now called “Teacher” are now from the tax bureau, or other government departments. In addition to more teachers in today’s society, there seem to be a lot more people asking for favors.
The latest development in the field of filial piety has aroused some controversy. A set of new standards was recently jointly released by the China National Committee on Aging and the All-China Women’s Federation, which calls on adult children to be with their parents on holidays, cook for them from time to time, and telephone them each week. In addition, they should help divorced or widowed parents remarry, watch old movies together, listen to the stories of their youth, and teach them how to surf the internet.
The new 24-point guidelines are part of a year-long public education campaign targeting 15 major Chinese cities. Several months ago, the National People’s Congress moved to amend a law protecting elderly people, which would make it a criminal offense for children to neglect their parents.
There are apparently some 50 million old folks in China who are living alone. Not surprisingly, however, many people feel that laws and guidelines may not be appropriate or effective means of revitalizing the values of filial piety.
I think it’s a good thing to raise awareness of traditional values in society, and I personally like the idea of young people listening to my stories and helping me improve my internet skills. On the other hand, I can’t quite imagine calling the police to report a violation of filial piety. I think they have better things to do, and so do I.
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